Building trust is the key to rehabilitating timid horses.
Timid horses are my favorites to work with. Once you show them you are trustworthy, they become willing to do anything for you. This article will look at ways you can build trust in a scared or overwhelmed horse, and set him on the road to becoming a calm and confident performer.
I’ve worked with my fair share of timid horses. I was warned that one of my new horses, a three-year-old APHA filly, was a kicker and hard to catch. It didn’t take me long to realize Kalila wasn’t actually a “kicker”. She was a timid horse, and was likely kicking out in fear of being trapped.
Kalila’s story isn’t uncommon. Often, when horses become scared or overwhelmed, it triggers their fight or flight response. Unfortunately, a lot of timid horses get a bad reputation, and are often labeled as unpredictable, explosive, hard to catch or even dangerous. Fortunately, it is possible to earn the trust of a timid horse, and they can make amazing partners.
Two keys to unlocking the potential of a timid horse
1. Trust is the first key to unlocking any horse – especially a timid one. Think of it this way. If you imagine yourself in a scary situation (for me, that might be in a room full of spiders) and you’re alone, you’ll probably take a long time to reason out the situation. If you imagine being with someone you don’t trust, it will take even longer because you will resist this person and question her advice. If you are with someone you do trust, however, you can relax and calmly come to a desired resolution without all the panic.
2. The second key is recognizing when tension is building, and stopping it before the horse goes “red”. Imagine the same scary situation as before, but this time you’re being pushed to face your fear before you are ready. What happens? Snap! The fight or flight response gets triggered. You panic and will do anything to get away.
The warning signs of “going red”
Timid horses are usually quick to turn “red”, so it’s important to know what this means and what to do.
I use the same energy colors for horses that schools use for children when talking about self-regulation (the ability to recognize and control emotions). Red is a high-energy or anxious state, yellow is a low-energy depressive state, and green is the calm alert state.
It’s important to know that we can only learn if we are in the green calm alert state.
Try putting yourself in your horse’s hooves; imagine trying to learn a new language with people you don’t understand. Pretend you are shy, the type who steps back and thinks things through. How would you feel if you didn’t understand what was being asked of you, and the person started adding more pressure? Would you snap?
Before a horse becomes overwhelmed, he’ll display important signals that indicate he’s leaving the green state and is starting to go red. Here are some things to look for:
- The horse is “stuck” and seems unable to move.
- He is tense and stiff through his body.
- He’s taking shallow breaths or holding his breath.
- His movements are quick and rigid.
- His eyes are wide and looking around.
- The horse is calling.
When you notice these warning signs, it’s a good idea to do one of three things:
- Wait for the horse to settle and just take a deep breath.
- Try a calm connection exercise.
- Try a simple task that is easy for the horse to say “yes” to. This allows him to retreat into a calmer frame of mind.
Building trust through passive dominance
Earning a horse’s trust might seem like an impossible task, but it isn’t. It also doesn’t take as long as you might think. To earn a horse’s trust, you need to show him you understand him. You want him to look to you for direction, and demonstrate in return that you are capable of giving it.
The calm connection exercises I use are designed to mimic herd behavior by moving together and seizing opportunities for the human to exert passive dominance.
Passive dominance is when you engage in body language movements that suggest you are a leader – without making an active dominant move, such as biting or kicking. In human terms, if you initiate a handshake with another person and take your hand away first, it signals to both parties that you are the more dominant one in the relationship. Horses are very aware of passive dominance, and through subtle behaviors, you can become the leader.
Use mirroring to establish leadership
Have you ever watched a herd of new horses? They move like a school of fish, all together. Eventually, one emerges as the leader; s/he will start to make changes before the others, perhaps in direction or speed.
Humans can experience this with horses in a liberty game we call “mirroring”. Mirroring works if you have an anxious or high-energy horse. The human mirrors the horse by running around or looking out. The horse then notices the human and is drawn to her.
Exercises that teach you to move together
Learning to move together with a calm connection goes a long way to building trust. One exercise that facilitates this is called “Square”, and can be done on the ground or on the horse.
Square: a calm connection exercise
At first glance, “Square” looks simple enough, but it has many pieces that make it a powerful exercise.
On the ground:
- Lead your horse in a square pattern — the straight lines and 90° corners help make it clear that neither human nor horse is pushing one other. The corners help the horse shape around the human.
- Change up the size and shape of the square, making it smaller, larger or rectangular.
- Start by matching your horse’s energy, but try to be one shade closer to “green” (see sidebar).
- Make turns on the square if your horse is too fast or distracted.
- You can politely press on your horse’s shoulder to ask him to shape out around you.
- Always turn away from your horse (so you are on the inside of the square).
- Choose one rein and stick with it until the horse settles.
- If using the left rein, turn only to the left; if using the right, turn right.
- Make turns on the square if your horse is too fast or distracted, or when you choose to turn.
- It’s okay if your square shape becomes more of a circle. There isn’t the same worry of being pushed or pushing as compared to leading on the ground.
- Allow the horse to pop his shoulder to the outside; this allows him to feel less trapped.
The purpose of this exercise is to simply show the horse that you can move together at the energy level he needs to move at, without judgment, punishment or a need for perfection.
Stay open to communication
Horses are like humans; they have complex personalities and emotions. Observing and learning from them helps us communicate in our shared language, and this is especially true of timid horses.